Race Report: National Elite XCM Championships

As of last week, Tasmania was the only state in Australia I had not yet visited. Flying in to Launceston on a calm Wednesday afternoon, just as the sun was contemplating setting, meant that shades of yellow and orange were thrown over the numerous mountain ranges and lush forests that reached out right to the edge of the coastline. My first impression of this little state was certainly a good one, even if the temperature on the tarmac was a little brisk.

Derby is a small town about 90 minutes from Launceston. The most direct route is via an incredibly windy mountain pass with sharp blind corners and not much in the way of guard rails, which gets icy and is frequented by the odd logging truck.

While I wasn’t quick enough to get accommodation in Derby itself, I luckily grabbed a bed in the Tin Dragon Trail Cottages in nearby Branxholm, sharing a cabin with the super talented Eliza Kwan. It’s a great place to stay – only 10 minutes drive from the trails at Derby and on a stunning country property nestled in the bends of the Ringarooma River with vast green paddocks, alpacas, chickens, wallabies (small round ones that look like jumping possums) and the odd wild platypus.

A waterfall on the trail. Pretty stunning, even if I did get my feet wet.

The whole area has plenty of tin mining history – I won’t spoil all the discovery for you, but there were some pretty significant events, such as the bursting of a dam, half of Derby being washed away and plenty of confrontations between Chinese and local miners.

A few days of enjoying the local surrounds and riding the track with mates made it feel like the ideal relaxing holiday. That said, it was clear that the nervous tension was building in the elite riders the closer it got to race day – this was not like other races – this was the National Championship race.

After a somewhat troubled night’s sleep, the morning of the race had arrived. Conversations between riders were short and focus on the task at hand was high. After a bit of a ride on the track to get my eye in, I spent the rest of the time setting myself up in the feed zone, spinning the legs out on the road, putting in a few short sprints and generally trying to stay warm.

Not much more to say – just stunning.

The Elite women’s race started in the town of Derby, running down the main street, following a windy sealed road up the side of a hill and connecting to steep fire trail. Once the gun went off, the women spent the first few hundred meters sussing each other out, before some started to launch attacks as the gradient increased. The most notable of these was Jenny Blair – who was off like a rocket – with no rider keen or capable of following. She immediately grabbed a significant lead entering the single track.

After starting a bit slowly, I found myself entering the single track with the likes of Jenni King, Mel Ansett and two other girls. Not only was I in the main group, but I was feeling good, even after having to gap half way up. Any concerns about being dropped on the first climb were put aside and although I struggled to keep sight of the other girls on the first big descent, I had my tail in the air and a sense of confidence.

Photo by Stormy Boy

The women’s race was 70km – one initial 10km lap followed by two of the larger 30km laps. While I had budgeted in my mind about 30mins for the first 10km (given the extended climb and amount of single track), I was elated when I flew through the feed zone in much less than that. Picking up a hydration pack, the plan was to drink as much as I could on the first 30km lap, meaning I didn’t have to worry too much about drinking on the second lap. With that plan, I could also leverage the few opportunities I would get to consume gels, not fumble with a small drink bottle (the course was 95% twisty single track and only really had one location to feed).

I started the first 30km lap in a group of three with Tassie locals, Edwina Hughes and Jody Bush. We wound our way up the numerous switch back climbs to the fire trail – while the pace was constant, it was hard to get away given the terrain.  Still feeling good, I was comfortable on the back, following the lines of two girls who seemed to have a great knowledge of the course.  Turning on to the fire trail, all three of us reached for gels and started spinning up the steep sections.

Some of the switch-backs.
Some of the switch-backs.

Wanting to test them a little, I accelerated up the hill. Initially creating a gap, Jody Bush did well to catch and stay with me, while Hughes fell off the back. The downhill fire trail was another story however, as my more cautious approach to cornering meant I lost track of Bush. I did get close again on some of the flatter sections, but her single track skills and track knowledge meant I had a hard time staying with her. I would occasionally get close again on climbs, but loose her on the long fast descents.

While trying to catch Bush, I was also aware Hughes was behind me. Although I had the edge climbing, she would later catch me on the long Dambusters descent and after putting in a solid effort, drop me on the twisty run in to the feed zone. Feeling strong, I put in my own big effort up the long fire trail climb on lap two, but was unable to get close enough to hold on.

The rest of lap two was spent trying to hold off anyone else behind me and working hard in the hope someone up ahead was struggling. Even though I was just managing to suck down gels every 45 mins, the course started to take it’s toll midway through my final lap. Sections of mud had become quite cut up by now and my legs were on Struggle Street trying to push through it. It felt like I was riding with my brakes on.

Photo by Stormy Boy

Hitting the descent down from the top of Kruska’s, it was pretty much all downhill from here. Although probably still 10km to the finish line, I had finished the majority of the climbing and had passed the worst of the mud. Ahead of me were twisty, flat and fast sections, as well as a cold creek crossing. It was important to stay upright and not loose focus, regardless of how hungry, tired, thirsty and muddy I was at this point.

Photo by Russ Baker
Photo by Russ Baker

I’m glad to say I crossed the finish line without a crash and in 10th position. Top 10 was a bit of an aspirational goal for me, so to hear I scraped in was pretty unbelievable.  Jenny Blair was the eventual winner on the day, 10 minutes ahead of second place Eliza Kwan (woohoo!) and third place Rebecca Locke. Unfortunately the other favourite, Jenni King, suffered a bad puncture ~15km in which ended her race.

Mud much? This was a jersey race plate.
Mud much? This was a jersey race plate.

The trail at Derby is just awesome – built by the World Trail crew, there is a network of fun across the dense bushy hillside which stretches for close to 50km (with more to come).  It’s damp, soft, loamy and grippy. There are ferns, berms, waterfalls, rivers, bridges, a massive dam, granite boulders and some of the biggest trees I have ever seen. Derby is well on the way to achieving the objective of being a destination for mountain biking. If you like Skyline and Luge at Mt Stromlo, some of the descents at Derby will blow your mind.

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